TOKYO (Reuters Life!) - First a sumo wrestler, then an actor, now students at elite universities and a tennis player -- the list of people caught using marijuana has sparked fears of reefer madness in Japan.
More than 2,000 people were arrested on dope charges between January and October this year, a 19 percent increase on the same period last year, according to the National Police Agency.
“(The) increase in marijuana abusers, as well as tightening regulations, are both factors that pushed up the number of arrests,” Shingo Katsuno, vice president and an expert on Japan’s drug issues at Hyogo University of Teacher Education, told Reuters in a telephone interview.
“Japan is now highly interested in the issue because it is spreading in places like colleges, where it hardly existed before,” he added.
Television stations and newspapers have been running almost daily stories on high profile busts, drug dealers and ordinary people whose lives have allegedly been ruined by pot.
But experts point out that surveys suggest reality is a lot different -- just one percent of 18-year olds in Japan have ever used marijuana according to a nationwide poll of about 40,000 students in 2006.
In fact, the “epidemic” scare stories are more indicative of how much Japan continues to resist the drug, Katsuno said.
“No other country is making such a big fuss with some 1 percent. This shows the strict awareness Japanese society has against drugs,” he said.
Comparable surveys of teen marijuana habits in the U.S. and Britain found many times the number -- 42 percent and 38 percent of older teens respectively -- confessing to usage.
Anti-narcotics education is drummed into Japan’s school students and little differentiation is made between “hard” and “soft” drugs.
The nation’s strict attitude toward illegal substances stems in part to a post World War two amphetamine spike, which saw widespread abuse of the substance after it was sold without a prescription for around a decade.
While legalizing marijuana or using it for medical purposes to treat diseases such as cancer and AIDS has been debated and approved in some western countries, such ideas haven’t caught on in Japan.
In one of the country’s most infamous busts, Beatle Paul McCartney spent nine days in a Tokyo jail in 1980 after arriving at the capital’s airport with a bag of marijuana in his suitcase.
Today, those caught possessing, giving or receiving marijuana face up to five years jail time.
Japanese media blames the marijuana “epidemic” on a legal loophole that makes it possible for anyone to buy seeds with just a few clicks on the Internet.
While possessing the seeds is legal in Japan, germinating them is not -- unless you have a license.
Japan’s police agency said it is looking into closing the seed loophole, and getting online advertisements removed.
Expert Katsuno said Japan needs to maintain its vigilance as the society opens up.
“(We) will need to make sure to pass on the (message about the) danger of drugs to the next generation,” he said.
Editing by Gillian Murdoch